Seattle's inquest system needs better scrutiny
Though the jurors in the Officer Ian Birk inquest have left room for the possibility of charges in the shooting of John T. Williams, it is an imperfect system. Guest columnist Gyasi Ross urges more scrutiny that better respects the person who has died.
Special to The Times
LAST Thursday, I bit my tongue when the jurors in the Ian Birk inquest handed down their findings.
I wanted to smile when four jurors agreed with what common sense told us — that Seattle Police Officer Birk was not in any imminent danger when he shot Native woodcarver John T. Williams Aug. 30. I wanted to be happy that four jurors saw through the smoke screen that Birk's attorney, Ted Buck, concocted, asserting that Birk gave Williams sufficient time to put down his knife. I wanted to celebrate when most jurors concluded Williams was not facing Birk when Birk shot him.
This was a victory for transparency in government, for people who feel bullied by public servants. This was a victory for common sense.
Well, maybe not. Perhaps before we claim the Birk inquest as a unilateral victory for the people of Seattle, we should put the decision into the context of state law and also 40 years of inquests.
Although the inquest jurors handed down findings that leave room for the possibility that Birk could be charged criminally, there is no guarantee King County prosecutors will pursue charges against their fellow public servant. In fact, there is really no reason to believe that prosecutors have any incentive to bring criminal charges — even assuming that they want to.
Washington has fairly lenient laws that protect police officers from criminal prosecution anytime the officer claims they used deadly force in self-defense, unless it can be shown he or she acted with malice and a lack of good faith. That's right — the police officer only has to "claim" that he used the deadly force in self-defense.
Therefore, even if the prosecutors want to charge Birk, they may believe that such action is futile.
There are many reasons this inquest was an anomaly, and also many reasons that inquests remain fool's gold for Seattleites seeking justice, including the following:
• Inquests put the dead person on trial. Unfortunately, the dead person is not around to deliver his or her side of the story, so the officer can characterize the deceased however he wants. Birk spoke of Williams' "very stern, very serious, very confrontational look" and his "confrontational posture."
Fortunately, in this particular case, there were witnesses to counter Birk's characterizations. In many instances when police officers kill, only the officer and the deceased are present.
• Inquests are not criminal trials, yet they employ as much chicanery and as many attempts to conceal as a criminal trial. I read, with curiosity, the attempts by Birk's lawyer to suppress Birk's very obvious self-contradictions immediately after he shot Williams. Such trickery is par for the course in criminal trials — as a former defense attorney, I recognize that generally a dearth of information is good news for my client.
However, these inquests are supposed to be transparent, and meant to reassure civilian psyches that peace officers operate under the law. Yet, when the police officer seeks to block the free flow of information, one reasonably wonders if transparency or true fact-finding is really the goal.
• The largest point is that we cannot fully celebrate because this "victory" does not exist in a vacuum. Seattle Police Department inquests have a 40-year history of not holding police officers accountable. Therefore, this one "victory" is not a panacea and certainly does not stand for the proposition that the inquest process is suddenly right. It is not right.
We should call this what it is: The Birk inquest is the perfect storm of dashboard cams, broad daylight and honest witnesses, combined with discerning jurors, that all conspired together to narrowly show, momentarily, that officers are not infallible. It is nothing more and nothing less.
I cannot assign the Birk inquest more value than it deserves. It is good — thank you, jurors.
Still, inquests need more inquiry, more criticism, and very possibly a U.S. Department of Justice investigation to bring its purported mission in line with its actual administration. Then, perhaps, we can celebrate.Gyasi Ross, a Seattle lawyer, is a member of the Blackfeet Nation, a former Seattle public defender and a former member of the Seattle Human Rights Commission.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.